Every year there’s controversy over the use of punctuation in public places. Often it’s the humble apostrophe causing trouble, and so it was in Cambridge recently when the city council removed the mark from street signs. Unhappy pedants armed with markers set about replacing the missing apostrophes, which were later officially reinstated.
One anxious campaigner said: ‘Where’s it going to stop? Are we going to declare war on commas, outlaw full stops?’ Answer: No. This kind of extreme rhetoric, though not uncommon, is unfounded. Errant apostrophes do not signal the decline of punctuation (or civilization), still less its imminent ruin. But they do remind us that punctuation style is in constant, gradual flux, and varies from one context to another. And, yes, they remind us that people make mistakes.
The apostrophe has always generated difficulty and dispute. Even editors differ over its correct use. In the familiar phrase do’s and don’ts, Macmillan Dictionary includes an apostrophe in do’s, while other authorities, such as the Oxford Manual of Style, prescribe the more consistent – but odder-looking – dos and don’ts. There are reasonable arguments for and against both styles. Don’t’s is also used, though the double apostrophe puts many people off.
This kind of variation is a normal part of the great sprawl of English usage. As a proofreader and editor I apply contemporary standards of correctness – and, where these vary, consistency and adherence to a regional or house style. As a reader I wince at its–it’s confusion – especially in formal contexts, where, as Michael notes, it can diminish authority.
But I don’t get worked up over apostrophes dropped from street signs or added to grocers’ signs. I wouldn’t lose sleep if they were abandoned altogether, though that would be easier said than done, and some apostrophes are useful for avoiding ambiguity. But I dont think theres any difficulty in reading this (non-standard) apostrophe-less sentence, for example. And few readers would stumble over Shakespeare’s ‘My fathers brother’ or ‘Ile make a ghost of him that lets me’.
In a post on the apostrophe’s possible future, I said worlds of contention spring from trivial distinctions. Language usage is often an excuse for people to voice unease and displeasure at other aspects of society; we become attached to what are ultimately trivial parts of usage, as though any change in the status quo were an assault on everything we hold dear. But the status quo of a living language is forever mutable: apostrophizing 1950’s was the norm not so long ago; now it’s more usually 1950s. And were – sorry, we’re, still communicating quite capably.Email this Post